When David King joined Fern Prairie United Methodist Church in Camas as head pastor in July 2018, the church was in the midst of a transition period.
“We were kind of regrouping and trying to decide what our mission is going to be in this area,” said Camas resident Sharon Carmichael, the church’s treasurer. “(King) really wants to reach out to our neighbors, particularly the new development down the road, and try to boost our membership.”
Carmichael thought of something she had seen at other churches known as a blessing box — an outdoor closet of sorts where people can donate items such as non-perishable food, clothing, and toiletries and others can take what they need, no questions asked.
Carmichael suggested Fern Prairie United Methodist implement a similar box, and King took to the idea immediately.
“It’s part of our ministry to reach out,” King said. “As a small church, it seemed like something we could do. (Our congregation) is getting older, and we don’t have all the time and resources that (other churches) have. There’s not a whole lot we could do to help folks since we’re on the outside of town.”
Church members installed the box in front of the church last November, and it has been met with warm reception.
“We started small because we didn’t know what would happen,” Carmichael said. “It’s really been a success. I could (refill) it every week.”
The sign on front of the box describes the box’s function — “Take what you need, leave what you can.” People can put items into the box at any time, and people can take whatever they want from the box at any time.
While the variety of items in the box can change from day to day, it’s usually filled with food, clothes and personal items. Carmichael checks the box about once per week and fills it with items if necessary.
“We found that the paper products and the laundry soap and the personal things go faster than anything else because (people) can’t buy (those things) with food stamps,” she said. “We didn’t know what would be needed, so we filled it mostly with food. Then we realized that when paper and personal items were in there, they went really fast — shampoo and soap and laundry detergent and Kleenex and paper towels and toilet paper.”
Carmichael said the church would like to install a bigger box before winter in order to provide items such as coats and blankets.
“We didn’t want to invest a lot of money because we didn’t know how successful it’s going to be, so it’s going to have to be replaced (with a bigger box) that can house more (items) and has more protection from the elements,” she said. “It’s on 4-by-4 pedestals, and it’s kind of rocky now. It’s not real solid because it’s top heavy, so we’ll have to restructure it.”
Carmichael has spread the word about the box by posting on the Camas-Washougal Rural Facebook page.
“I got a lot of responses from people saying, ‘I drive by there every day and I’ll leave things,'” she said. “One person was moving out of her house and moving to the south somewhere, so she emptied her pantry and brought it in because she didn’t want to move it all. People need a place to put things if they don’t need them; may as well have someone benefit from it.”
The church, located about four miles north of downtown Camas at 26112 N.E. Brunner Road, has about 30 regular attendees.
“We know each other and our families. It’s real personal. It’s not like you go into a congregation and fade into the woodwork. Everybody knows you,” Carmichael said. “They’re very open and warm and accepting people, very kind. There’s no bickering.”
Church leaders at Fern Prairie United Methodist are planning to combine with Vancouver’s Heritage Church to put on a benefit concert this summer to raise funds for Teen Research Adventure Camp, a summer camp that offers support to children between the ages of 12 and 15 who are in or have been in foster care.
“Most of (our attendees) are older. I’m probably one of the younger ones,” Carmichael said. “They’re getting to the point where they can’t do a lot of the work, so we need a younger group to come in. I just got my nephew, who’s 16, to come in and play the guitar for services. We’re trying to change what we’re doing and update and be more open for younger people.”
King anticipates that, with the growth in Camas’ North Shore area, the church may soon attract many new members.
“There’s so much growth headed our way with the housing projects that are going in,” he said. “We’ll try to get prepared for lots of newcomers. We’re expecting younger people to move our way.”
King served as the pastor for two small churches on the Southwest Washington coast before coming to the Fern Prairie church.
“So far it’s been really good,” he said. “I’ve met some great people and build good relationships. I think it’s been a good fit for everybody. It feels like home to me even though I haven’t been there very long.”